News flash: 3-D animation techniques didn't start with Pixar in the 1980's or Henry Selick in the 1990's.
While quite a few great, creative, original and innovative artists - Charley Bowers, Willis O' Brien, George Pal, Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth, Karel Zeman, Jiri Trnka, Art Clokey - developed stop-motion animation techniques, arguably the most vivid, dreamlike, and strikingly surreal 3-D animation universe created onscreen was by the Russian-born entomologist turned animator Ladislaw Starewicz.
Starewicz produced puppet animation films for six decades. He began his career in filmmaking in 1909-1910 in Russia, then fled during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and produced a wide range of puppet animation films in France until his passing in 1965.
He started as an entomologist making educational films with bugs - yes, bugs. . . real bugs. Working on a documentary illustrating the mating rituals of insects, Starewicz discovered stop-frame animation, and realized that he could make "trickfilms" featuring said bugs. So observe the following remarkable and surprisingly adult-themed piece produced nearly one hundred years ago - starring insect philanderers.
What separates Starewicz from his animation contemporaries - with the possible exceptions of the Fleischer Studio - is a macabre sensibility. His 1933 film The Mascot (a.k.a. Fétiche) remains the only stop-motion film I have seen to elicit the reaction "holy crap - this is a 3-D Heironymous Bosch painting!" No doubt viewing an original 35mm nitrate print of Starewicz' complete 30 minute opus would be an amazing big screen experience - and here is the very scene that provoked that reaction:
Starewicz worked for ten years on a feature film Le Roman de Renard (a.k.a. "The Tale of the Fox"), released in 1931. Here's a clip:
So today, this blog raises a snifter of Stoli to the memory, vivid imagination and visionary imagery of Ladislaw Starewicz, the spiritual predecessor of present-day stop-motion surrealists The Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer. The following DVD can still be ordered via Amazon.com.
For more info, check out Eric Schneider's piece, Entomology And Animation: A Portrait Of An Early Master: Ladislaw Starewicz in Animation World Magazine, as well as this scholarly article penned for the Senses Of Cinema website by Adrian Danks, president and co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque.